For the past two weeks, “Dunkirk” has topped the box office in cinemas throughout the UK. The film is a fictional rendition of the British evacuation from the French port of Dunkirk in May 1940, as Hitler’s invading divisions blitzed their way toward Paris. The evacuation involved more than 400,000 soldiers, including many Frenchmen and troops recruited in British Empire units such as Canada and Australia.
The greatest retreat in the history of warfare prevented the Germans from annihilating the bulk of the British military, giving London the chance to prepare to fight another day. At first glance, there was little heroism in such a vast force fleeing without fighting; armies usually retreat after they have fought and lost a battle.
Yet what came to be known as “the spirit of Dunkirk” was truly heroic as thousands of ordinary Brits, defying Hitler’s vast war machine, made their way to the French port — often aboard small fishing boats, dinghies and even a few floating bathtubs — to help bring the stranded soldiers back to England. Over the following decades, “the spirit of Dunkirk” came to indicate a key characteristic of the British: Fighting when their backs are to the wall.
So unsurprisingly, those who campaigned for Brexit last year have seized on the excitement created by the new film to inject some heroism in their narrative. “Yes,” they say, “Britain is heading for tough times outside the EU, but helped by the spirit of Dunkirk, it shall overcome all hurdles.” One leading Brexit campaigner has even demanded that the film be shown in schools to boost the morale of the young whose lives will be most affected by leaving the EU.
But it is hard to draw a parallel between Brexit and Dunkirk, if only because the EU cannot be equated with Nazi Germany. Nor was the UK at war with the EU, an alliance of democratic nations whose latest version Britain played a leading role in creating. For Brits in Dunkirk, it was a matter of life and death. But regarding the EU, Britain enjoyed membership in the world’s biggest economic bloc alongside most of its NATO allies.
Brexit advocates cite four reasons for the UK to leave. The first is “regaining lost national sovereignty.” But in its White Paper published earlier this year, the government declared that Britain never lost sovereignty. EU membership meant sharing, not losing sovereignty.
Britain already shares sovereignty in many international and regional organizations, including NATO, the UN, the Commonwealth, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. If sharing sovereignty is equated with its loss, the UK should withdraw from more than 120 organizations, something even North Korea has not done.
In any case, EU membership involves sharing sovereignty on a limited number of issues linked to commerce, industrial standards, agriculture and working conditions. It does not extend to taxation and interest rates, let alone national security, defense and foreign policy. The fact that Britain can leave the EU or any other international organ of which it is a member shows that shared sovereignty does not mean loss of sovereignty.
The greatest retreat in the history of warfare prevented the Germans from annihilating the bulk of the British military, giving London the chance to prepare to fight another day. Dunkirk was about running away only to return. Will Brexit repeat that?
The second reason cited by Brexiteers, “control of borders,” is equally bogus. Anyone entering the UK knows they must show a passport or identity card and be formally admitted into the country. EU citizens have the right to enter the territory of any member state without a visa to visit, look for a job, study or simply reside.
But under the 2007 Treaty of Lisbon, they cannot stay beyond three months unless they can prove they have a job, are in fulltime education or have independent means of support. Member states can, and in many cases do, expel EU citizens who do not fulfil the stated conditions.
The third bogus claim is about “rule by unelected officials in Brussels.” The Council of Ministers is the EU’s main decision-making and legislative body, and is composed of ministers from member states, all of whom are democratically elected. It forms the union’s legislative body together with the European Parliament, which is also directly elected by voters in all member states.
When it comes to the so-called “Brussels bureaucracy,” it is necessary to remember that it is composed of individuals appointed by elected governments of member states, in the same way civil servants are appointed in each country with clear patterns of accountability. There is nothing that the “Brussels bureaucracy” can do without the approval of the governments of member states and their parliaments.
The final reason cited by Brexiteers is the claim that the UK, outside the EU, would be better able to make trade deals with the rest of the world. But the UK is already trading with more than 190 countries, many of which have full or partial trade deals with the EU that the UK has played a key role in shaping.
It is not because of EU membership that the UK is exporting to the US half as much as Germany does. The reason is that Germans produce goods that Americans want to buy and the Brits do not, because the UK has specialized in service industries at the expense of manufacturing. Being in or out of the EU need not alter that fact.
There are no objective reasons to necessitate Brexit, whereas the Dunkirk retreat was an inescapable necessity. But regarding Brexit, it would be foolish to ignore the subjective, emotional factors. Many Brits feel there are too many foreigners in their country, and blame EU citizens for declining standards in their National Health Service, shortage of affordable housing, pressure on schools and even traffic jams.
Dunkirk was about running away only to return. Will Brexit repeat that?
• Amir Taheri was executive editor in chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications and published 11 books. — Originally published in Asharq Al-Awsat.